What a difference four years can make. Our inaugural list of the 25 best video games of 2011 was stuffed full of big-budget sequels. In 2015, fewer than half of our picks are traditional AAA releases, two of which focus on putting creativity into the hands of the player. There are hardly any sequels here, and of those that made it, with one exception that proves the rule in Fallout 4, all have introduced bold and significant improvements on their predecessors, refusing to be pigeonholed in an annualized and formulaic fashion.
Maybe this year’s a fluke, with studios only momentarily adapting to reflect the dissatisfaction over last year’s bumper crop of buggy, repetitive games like Assassin’s Creed: Unity. But the larger trends suggest this is more than a trick of our subjective preferences. Adventure games, led largely by the efforts of Telltale Games, have become popular and profitable again, and while the lowering barrier of entry to game development explains the increase of deeply personal and eclectic indie titles, it doesn’t explain the mainstream interest in them, as with Square Enix’s choice to publish Life Is Strange.
The best example that studios and players are looking for the Next Big Thing, or at least a whiff of something new, is in the existence of The Talos Principle. How else to explain the success of a deep, philosophical puzzler from the testosterone-y studio once best known for Serious Sam? As developers continue to take risks, games grow more inventive and hard to define. Roger Ebert once famously dismissed the notion that games could be taken seriously as art, but his peers would be hard-pressed to do the same today, especially given the way in which advances in motion-capture technology have basically turned some games, like Until Dawn, into interactive films.
Our list this year pulls from all sorts of genres—the transcendental spaghetti-western homage, an intentionally bizarre bullet-hell shooter—and recognizes how fiercely creative games are becoming. Most of all, we’re proud to see a community that’s looking toward an inclusion of ever-broader perspectives, without having to sacrifice the pure entertainment afforded to us by some of the purer adrenaline rushes to make our list. Whether gamers end up going for all of these titles, the fact that there’s now more and more for everyone can only be a net positive for the future of this industry. Aaron Riccio
Three Fourths Home: Extended Edition
Through a family’s yearning for solidarity and economic security, Three Fourths Home: Extended Edition finds a spiritual connection between seemingly disparate generations. You make dialogue choices as twentysomething Kelly, whose disappointment about her lack of self-sufficiency could have made for a pandering tale of millennial angst. Developer Zach Sanford avoids this mistake by also emphasizing the vicissitudes of her family’s life, whether it’s her father being out of work due to injury, her younger autistic brother’s trouble at school, or her sometimes-overbearing mother trying to hold the whole unit together. This approach gives Three Fourths Home a mature social consciousness, allowing the characters to illustrate common American anxieties that transcend the party politics of our time. In the game’s epilogue (the “Extended” part), Sanford writes the best line in 2015 video games from the perspective of Norah: “A grade is a grade. A job’s a job. My wisdom isn’t exactly the most creative.” This statement captures the alienation, resolve, and humility of U.S. working people in universal terms. In the epilogue, you can only walk back and forth. This limited movement, like the single-button acceleration of a car in the primary chapter, represents a soul stuck in place. Jed Pressgrove
Most old-school games give you up to three lives to complete your objective. Contemporary story-based blockbusters, in their bid for inclusiveness, freely hand over as many as you require. The Swindle occupies a uniquely arbitrary position in the middle: it gives you one hundred. This number corresponds both to the amount of days left until Scotland Yard activates a Foucauldian surveillance machine, and to the number of chances you’re given to break into Victorian London homes guarded by colourful steampunk automata, grab what you can, and use the spoils to upgrade your equipment to, eventually, take on the authorities and sabotage that ungodly apparatus. The Swindle looks like a platformer, but, like its obvious inspiration, Spelunky, is more of a skill-based, real-time puzzle game. As such, it’s not the intentionally clumsy controls that’ll become the many deaths of you, but the little things you’ll neglect to factor into your carefully orchestrated burglaries: the remote guardbot spared a blackjack to the head under the assumption its patrol will never cross your own illicit trajectory, or a mine you couldn’t bother to deactivate in the expectation that sneaking out of a labyrinthine mansion, loot in bag, can ever be as controlled and uneventful a process as entering it. The Swindle’s brilliance lies in a kind of clockwork design that expands linear video-game laws of causality into complex webs of volatile interrelationships lying invisibly in wait for the unfortunate misstep that causes them to erupt, spectacularly dismantling your best-laid plans and moving you one step closer to doomsday. Alexander Chatziioannou
Developer Jack King-Spooner’s games have always shared a provocative, hand-crafted quality that counters the polygon- and pixel-obsessed default of pop video games. But even his best work (Will You Ever Return? 2, Sluggish Morss: A Delicate Time in History) keeps the player at a distance for the purposes of philosophical and satirical contemplation. Beeswing bravely goes for the heart. King-Spooner reveals his rural Scottish origin through a journey in which memory and art express the real and the artificial as complementary forces, much like Federico Fellini’s Amarcord. The game concerns other people more than its creator, with King-Spooner’s mom establishing the moral core of being a sensitive neighbor who listens. The original soundtrack has an unusual willingness to acknowledge vulnerability from both a technical (you can hear deadened guitar notes that lack intentionality) and storytelling standpoint (pay attention to the scarily personal music that accompanies a surreal trip into the lonely mind of an elderly woman in a nursing home). If the gaming world doesn’t acknowledge and remember Beeswing, culture loses. Jed Pressgrove
Assassin’s Creed Syndicate
After the failure of the broken, monotonous Assassin’s Creed: Unity, Ubisoft went back to the drawing board promising a return to form for their struggling series. The narratively and mechanically exceptional Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate proves to be the shot in the arm that the series needed, largely due to the introduction of its female protagonist, Evie Frye. Since Assassin Creed 2’s Ezio, each game’s protagonist has felt emotionally distant and passive. Evie is neither. She’s an active participant in the civil war that explodes across Victorian-era London at the close of the Industrial Revolution: She’s passionate, has relationships (including the rarest of rare, an interracial romantic interest), and fights believably for the side of the downtrodden and for her family. She’s skilled in battle, utilizing a cane sword with which to thrillingly cut through otherwise mundane combat, and appropriately accessorized with gadgets that make open-world traversal exciting again, most notably a steampunk grappling hook that allows one to bypass laborious running and climbing. Evie is the lens through which players view Syndicate’s unique take on London, and through which the series’s stale formula, largely unchanged over the last decade, is made fresh once again. Ryan Aston
Westerado: Double Barreled
“Open world” is a marketing term meant to trick people into thinking that if they play a game, they can be free. If there should be truth in advertising, Westerado: Double Barreled outclasses The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Batman: Arkham Knight, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, and Fallout 4, the biggest open-world hits of 2015. A freer experience can be found in Westerado’s mercifully brief introduction, to-the-point dialogue, unlimited bullets (though the cocking/reloading system keeps you on your toes), and the absolute rejection of a cluttered inventory. Developer Ostrich Banditos combines this terseness with the anarchic (and comic) potential of Fallout and Fallout 2, as almost any man or woman in Westerado is ready to pull a gun on you if you’re messing around. The pixelated graphics aren’t just there for retro hipness, but call for your attention to detail, making a worthy mystery out of the villain who kills the protagonist’s family. Like most games set in the Wild West, Westerado could be criticized for a superficiality that never approaches the moral and psychological depth of the western genre in cinema and literature. Thankfully, it’s also true that this consequences-driven bonanza has far better pacing and a sharper understanding of fun than most of the year’s action-filled efforts. Pressgrove